'Quite a humbling experience'

24th August 2007 at 01:00
One school held music classes in the shade of a mango tree. Another prepared children's meals using vegetables grown in its own market garden. Its pupils also had access to an outdoor pool untouched by chlorine because the water wasn't static a stream flowed through it.

These were two of the schools visited by Charles McAteer, the rector of Dumfries Academy, on a recent 10-day trip to Brazil, organised by the British Council.

The trip was part of a new five-year British Council project called SLANT school leadership and new technologies which aims to encourage co-operation between the UK and nine Latin American and Caribbean countries.

When the project ends, 95 schools in the UK will have links to schools in Brazil, Columbia, Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

Mr McAteer's descriptions of Brazil make it sound idyllic, but scratch the surface and the system leaves a lot to be desired, he said.

Nevertheless, he found much in Goias, where he was based, that inspired him not least a school of 1,700 pupils that operated on a budget of pound;2,000, around 100 times less than Dumfries Academy.

"This wasn't just about, 'Let's have a little blether so we can all feel good'," explained Mr McAteer, president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland. "It was thought that we could be of assistance in promoting good leadership and improving teaching practice and self-evaluation in Brazil."

"Spartan" is a word used frequently by Mr McAteer (pictured right) when describing the schools he visited, which ranged from a primary with 360 pupils to a further education college with a roll of 5,600.

Most schools coped with their modest facilities, he said, by employing shifts, with pupils being taught either in the morning, afternoon or evening. Specialist rooms were but a pipe dream with teachers moving between classes as opposed to pupils doing so.

One aspect of the Brazilian system that he found particularly unappealing was the election of headteachers by pupils, staff and parents. The Brazilian headteachers didn't think much of it either. "It was felt they were only just getting into their stride when there would be a change," he said.

Mr McAteer would like to see a move away from textbook learning in Brazil to more interactive lessons and better use of ICT. "Given the power of the internet and the paucity of resources to bring things to life, better use of ICT would make sense. One school had a suite of computers but they hadn't had their covers removed."

For Mr McAteer's part, the trip gave him fresh insight into his own work. "Their enthusiasm and dedication was quite remarkable," he said of the Brazilian staff. "At one school they were making detergent because it was their responsibility to keep the building clean. The initiative and enterprise was, quite frankly, humbling. I think the trip has helped create a sense of context and an appreciation that other people manage with a lot less."

The last two days of the trip were spent running workshops in Sao Paulo for the 25 participating Brazilian headteachers, covering topics such as self evaluation and how to construct good lessons. Mr McAteer gave a presentation on the importance of the pupil voice.

He will discover the extent to which the visitors' advice has been acted upon when he returns to Brazil in March. In November, the Brazilian heads will come to the UK and offer their advice on how our schools can improve community leadership and social inclusion.

Emma Seith

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